PW Daily for Booksellers (April 3, 2003)
What's So Funny About God? John Spalding Explains
Has the war got you down? Does the moral uncertainty of "preemptive"
invasion make you queasy? Do you find yourself praying--and
you're not religious? Fear not: you're not alone. Just check
out the action on Beliefnet.com, where people of all faiths
have gathered online to discuss the ramifications of our latest
While you're there, take a look at the columns of John Spalding,
Beliefnet's resident humorist, whose work has been collected
in the recently published volume, A Pilgrim's Digress: My
Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City. It's a short,
quip-laden look at the more bizarro side of American spirituality,
considering everything from trepanning (drilling holes in
your head to reach your third eye), homegrown Gardens of Eden
in Kansas, to the now fashionable pilgrimage to Santiago de
Compostela in Spain and the Christian Wrestling Federation.
PW Daily's Edward Nawotka, a Catholic military school graduate
and Jesuit educated, confronted, errrrrr, spoke with Spalding
about making fun of the Almighty.
PWD: Do you not fear God?
JS: When someone asks me that I reply, 'Does God not want
us to laugh?'
PWD: Is it hard to be funny about religion? Because all the
priests I grew up with didn't strike me as all that funny.
JS: I think a lot of people find it hard to be funny about
it's too easy to condescend. A lot of writers stay away because
they don't care about religion or it's so serious that they
stay away from it. I grew up in the Protestant church, and
it struck me that it's so human to be susceptible to folly
that there's a humorousness about it. I think that I'm able
to have enough respect for the people I write about and at
the same time I let them speak for themselves.
PWD: Is humor something that's essential to a religious experience?
JS: I think that when religion is authentic, it's close to
experience is--which is funny. The more taboo you view it
from a humor perspective, the more inhuman it is. I love going
out and exploring what people believe and showing how their
belief systems shape their lives. A lot of religion talks
about faith as subscribing to a lot of doctrines or beliefs
or ascribing power to religious figures. Often we think of
doctrines--but it's really about the heart. My view of faith
is that it's something that is within us.
PWD: But you never come out and really say what you believe
in the book.
JS: I'm not inclined to come right out and say what my beliefs
are in my writing principally because, well, that'd make for
Another reason is that I like the indirect approach. I have
spot for Aquinas' notion of via negativa--the negative way
Aquinas said that we can't know positively what the essence
of God is. We only know what we know about God by determining
what God isn't.
I'm also fond of Kierkegaard's notion of indirect communication,
which he got from Socrates. The idea that truth is subjective,
not something we can impart objectively. It's Socrates' belief
that teachers help students realize the truth for themselves,
rather than just swallow what they're told dogmatically. Humor,
I think, is a great way to communicate indirectly, allowing
readers to draw their own conclusions.
Aquinas and Kierkegaard seemed to really appreciate the mystery
and awe of life and faith. I like the idea that faith often
raises more questions than it answers. That just seems to
be the way life is. Yet the most successful faiths, in terms of growth and wealth,
the one's that paint faith in simple, black-and-white terms,
answers and certainty.
PWD: Your item on attending the annual meeting of the Christian
Booksellers Association is rather withering.
JS: Jesus's teachings seem to say to me that it's about how
you treat one another. The further religion gets to what faith
is about, the more elaborate it gets. CBA says it is a ministry,
but if you spend time with them, it's all about making money.
Its become an
institutional thing with its own interests.
PWD: Has your faith been strengthened or diminished by exploring
the fringes of religion?
JS: I like people who are a little different. Our society
has a way of
making us all the same. The market has decided what our options
are and there's such a great pressure to conform.
A lot of people would dismiss Pete Halverson, the guy in
Trepanation [the guy who got a hole drilled in his head].
I wanted to go out and meet this guy who really did this.
He turns out to be a really smart guy, and his reasons for
what he did have all the
internal consistencies of most world views. I'm fascinated
thinking that led to it.
PWD: So does the search for God or the pilgrimage ever end?
JS: It's not about the destination, it's about the journey.